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2 The origins of modern concepts of strategic management: the new role of leader

2 The origins of modern concepts of strategic management: the new role of leader

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Chapter 1  Strategic management in perspective   7

not be so romantic. At least in the Byzantine Empire, which existed for more than

1,000 years, the strategos, or general, had other important functions to do with governing the area under his control, particularly those of ensuring the conduct of the

population census and the listing of wealth to provide the information essential for

collecting taxes. In other words, the strategos was very much concerned with civil

governance and policy. The word policy also entered the English language from the

French word policie meaning ‘civil administration’, which in turn originated in the

Greek polis meaning ‘city state’ and politeia meaning ‘state administration’. From

the fifteenth century onwards, ‘policy’ meant ‘a way of management’, or a ‘plan of

action’, combining high-level goals, acceptable procedures and courses of action,

all meant to guide future decisions. It is more realistic to regard notions of strategy

in modern organisations as expressions of more mundane, evolving modes of civil

administration than of swashbuckling military deployments. The next question,

then, is just when notions of business policy and strategy became evident in the discourse about the management of modern organisations, particularly business firms.

During the nineteenth century joint stock/limited liability corporations developed

as legal forms, which made it much easier to raise finance for commercial ventures.

Instead of having partners fully liable for all the losses an enterprise incurred, a

joint stock company/limited liability corporation could raise finance from shareholders whose potential loss was limited to what they paid for their shares. This

development meant that the owners (shareholders) of organisations and those who

ran them (managers) became separate groups of people, in fact, different classes. As

agents of the owners, managers were often criticised by shareholders when financial

returns were below expectations, and when they tried to increase returns they were

increasingly cast as villains by workers during frequent periods of industrial unrest.

Khurana (2007) has carefully documented how this situation led to a quite intentional search in the USA for an identity on the part of the new managerial class, an

identity which was to be secured by establishing a professional status linked to the

prestigious disciplines of the natural sciences. Management was to be presented as a

science, and a science of organisation was to be developed. Professions such as medicine and engineering were characterised by institutions which defined membership,

established codes of ethics, encouraged research and professional development and

often published professional journals. Professionals were educated at research-based

universities. As part of the professionalisation of management, therefore, the first

business school was set up at Wharton University in the USA in 1881 and this was

followed by the founding of increasing numbers of university-based business schools

in the ensuing decades. At much the same time, the need to hold managers legally

accountable to shareholders resulted in legislation on public reporting of corporate

activities and further legislation seeking to regulate the growth and financing of

limited liability companies. These requirements for increasingly onerous reporting

procedures created the need for financial and other surveys of companies, so creating

a market for accounting/auditing firms, for engineering consultants and eventually

management consultants. In addition to business schools, therefore, other aspects of

the professionalisation of management were displayed in the development of professional membership institutions, professional educational organisations, and professional accounting, auditing and consulting bodies.

So, by the early years of the twentieth century, a managerial class, or in more

modern terms a managerial community of practice (Wenger, 1998), had developed,

8  Chapter 1  Strategic management in perspective

particularly in the USA, which encompassed not simply hierarchies of managers

­running corporations but also management consultants and other advisers, as well

as those concerned with the development of organisations and their managers, such

as business school academics, wealthy capitalist philanthropists and government

policy advisers.

Any community of practice engages in joint activities which develop a collective

identity and they accomplish these identity-forming activities in ongoing conversation in which they negotiate what they are doing and how they are making sense of

what they are doing with each other and with members of the wider society of which

they are part. It is in conversation that members of a community become who they

are. The form of such conversation is thus of central importance because, in establishing what it is acceptable for people to talk about in a community, and how it is

acceptable to talk, the conversational form, or discourse, establishes people’s relative

power positions and therefore who they are and what they do together. Every such

community of practice is characterised by a dominant discourse: the most acceptable way to converse, which reflects power positions supported by ideologies. The

dominant management discourse is reflected in how managers usually talk together

about the nature of their managerial activity. It is also reflected in the kind of organisational research that attracts funding from research bodies, the kind of papers that

prestigious research journals will publish, and the kind of courses taught at business

schools, in the textbooks they use and in organisational training and development

activities. However, evolving communities of practice are usually not simply monolithic power structures (as in fascism) with rigid ideologies brooking no dissension

(as in cults). Most communities of practice are also characterised by some resistance

to, or criticism of, the dominant discourse. A community of practice can change in

the tension between the dominant discourse and the critique of it. Understanding a

community of practice, therefore, requires understanding its forms of dominant discourse and the kind of dissension this gives rise to, the key debates characterising its

conversation and how conflict generated by such debate is handled. The operation

of the professional bodies of the management community described above provides

an essential source of information on how the dominant discourse on organisations

and their management has evolved. The most vocal of these professional bodies have

probably been the business schools and management consultancies. The changes in

business school curricula for educating managers and the changing composition of

management consultancy work, therefore, provide an illuminating insight into the

evolution of the dominant management discourse over the twentieth century.

By the 1920s business schools in the USA had developed three fairly distinct models of the curriculum for educating managers. First, some business schools delivered

curricula devoted to training managers for jobs in specific industries – say, operations

managers in steel manufacturing. Second, other business schools focused on business

functions, providing courses in accounting, finance, business correspondence and

sometimes history and some social sciences. Third, and this was particularly evident

in the small group of elite business schools such as Wharton and Harvard, there

was a focus on a science of administration for general managers, covering scientific

management as in Taylorism, accounting, economics of the political, historical, institutional kind rather than the neo-classical analysis found in economics faculties, and

training in the exercise of judgement rather than of routine procedures. In this third

development there was an emphasis on the social purpose of business activity and on

Chapter 1  Strategic management in perspective   9

the presentation of managers as professionals whose purpose was the stewardship of

society’s resources. Such an identity as professional stewards of society’s resources

was a powerful counter to the accusations of workers that managers were their

enemies and also a useful power shift in relation to shareholders. A list of courses

in business school curricula of all types shows that over the 1920s and 1930s there

were very few courses in business policy and none in strategy, strategic management, corporate planning or even planning: economics was far less important than

the social sciences and there was a strong interest in ethics (Khurana, 2007). Then,

if we look at the kind of work that accounting and consulting firms were doing,

we find that it was primarily to do with legal reporting requirements and the information required for this, studies of reporting structures and forms of organisation

and engineering and financial assessments for specific, large investment projects. So,

any notion of strategic management in organisations as we now understand it is a

post–Second World War phenomenon, certainly not one stretching back to ancient

Chinese, or even more recent Prussian, generals.

The Second World War was to have a major impact on the identity of ­managers –

the management of organisations became a key aspect of winning a war that

depended as much on the ability to organise the manufacture and transport of supplies as on the ability to direct military confrontations. During the war, therefore,

governments found it necessary to take seriously the techniques of management and

administration, and in the USA the government turned to the business schools to

address the difficulties of administering a war economy, including the tasks of collecting statistics and other information and developing techniques for co-ordinated

decision making across many different organisations. This led to the development

of techniques such as linear programming and systems analysis, which led later to

computer simulations, network analysis, queuing theory and cost-accounting systems. There was progress in statistics and statistical sampling, as well as in survey

methods and focus groups, under the pressures of assuring the quality of armaments.

Engineers developed the theory of systems to provide forms of self-regulating control. A new and more rational conception of the managerial role using the modern

techniques therefore developed during the war.

After the war, the managers who had acquired this kind of analytical expertise

for the war effort were available in their thousands to work on social and economic

reconstruction in business corporations and consulting firms, such as McKinsey,

where they applied the new techniques to organisational problems. Management

thus focused much more narrowly than before the war on the scientific manager

who used models and analytical techniques and designed and manipulated systems.

Management was equated with setting objectives, designing systems for meeting

them, planning, forecasting and controlling. Managers were described as ‘systems

designers’, ‘information processors’ and ‘programmers’ regulating the interface of

the organisation and its environment in accordance with cybernetic systems theory.

The rapid growth in corporate size and the rise of the conglomerate were characterised by a multiplicity of managers removed from the grass roots of the organisation’s

activities and who felt the need for models, maps and techniques that would enable

them to exert control from a distance. This need for techniques of modelling, mapping and measuring to enable the taking of a generalised macro view from a distance

in order to apply some degree of control had already been faced over a century

before by tax collectors and other administrators of the business of the modern state.

10  Chapter 1  Strategic management in perspective

In a sense, post-war organisational managers were importing systemic practice from

public administration while at the same time bringing more sophisticated models

and techniques to both private and public administration.

In addition, in the USA the government provided education for returning soldiers,

and this together with the need for more managers produced an explosive demand

for places at business schools which were to train managers in the new techniques.

The Association to Advanced Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) sought to

improve the quality of business education, and philanthropic foundations, such as

the Carnegie Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation,

funded business schools and so came to have an important impact on how they

developed. These foundations wanted to raise the academic standards of the business

schools by getting teachers at business schools to focus, in both their research and

teaching activities, on techniques for solving real, complex problems using quantitative methods. Neo-classical micro-economic analysis now became more prominent

than the social sciences because it provided analytical tools. The Ford Foundation

was strongly of the view that there was now a science of management which would

enable managers to make decisions solely on rational grounds using techniques such

as decision analysis and game theory, making any appeal to intuition, judgement

and ethics unnecessary. It was believed that this management science could be taught

at business schools by a faculty without business experience but who were expert

in decision-making techniques. Managers were regarded as technicians and the role

of the faculty at the business schools was that of transferring to managers the

­decision-making and control techniques that they would need. The much changed

conception of the management role brought with it a complete orientation towards

profit. The ordinary manager’s primary role was to perform the tasks required to

maximise profits for shareholders. It was believed that the new management techniques could be applied in any organisation of any size so that experience in a particular industry was not necessary – expertise in decision making and control was all

that was needed. But at the top of the hierarchy there was a CEO who many have

described, in this period, as a kind of industrial statesman who worked closely with

outside bodies such as government ministers, politicians and regulatory authorities,

while managers lower down in the hierarchy were simply technicians applying the

techniques of decision making and control that would maximise profits.

By the 1960s the AACSB was only accrediting standardised MBAs based on

disciplines such as finance and quantitative analysis, including neo-classical micro-­

economics. Business schools began to experience a growing schism between faculty

who lacked business experience and focused on research and techniques, and students who stressed their need for practical application. By the time we get to the

late 1960s and early 1970s some business schools were trying to meet the need for

integrating the various specialised courses they were teaching into an overall view of

management and they did this by introducing capstone courses on business policy. In

addition, in the 1960s specialist strategy consultants such as the Boston ­Consulting

Group and Bain & Company grew rapidly (McKenna, 2006). By the 1970s independent management consultants had also become very important in government

administration and advice. Consultants found a lucrative market in advising, first

universities, then religious institutions and then hospitals, on their organisational

structures and strategies. So, by the 1960s consultancies were involved in most kinds

of organisation in giving advice on business policy, corporate planning and strategy,

Chapter 1  Strategic management in perspective   11

and during this period management consultancy successfully established itself as a

profession with its own institutions.

The period from the end of the Second World War to the economic crisis of the

early 1970s was a period of more or less sustained company growth and economic

prosperity and managers came to be thought of as professional problem solvers who

employed a body of scientific knowledge to make rational decisions. This was the

period in which, first, business policy and then corporate planning courses became

more and more common in business schools – it came to be held that the crucial role

of the CEO was that of defining corporate goals and creating strategy. The management consultancies developed the rapidly growing markets for advice on formulating and implementing corporate strategies, which increasingly included merger and

acquisition activities. The concern with corporate strategy therefore generated enormous business for accounting and auditing firms, as well as investment bankers and

management consultants; and of course this was all part of increasing activities to

do with strategic planning in American corporations: it was estimated that by 1966

the majority of American manufacturing firms had some type of planning system

(Brown et al. 1969) and much the same kind of result was produced by later studies

of the situation in the mid-1970s (Fulmer and Rue, 1973; Haspeslagh, 1982; Kono,

1983). However, there were very few studies which examined the effects of strategic

planning on corporate success (see Chapter 8). The few studies there were produced

fragmentary and conflicting results (Rue and Fulmer, 1973). The story was much the

same in Europe. In the UK the first business school, London Business School, was set

up in 1964. A Long Range Planning Society was set up in London and the first issue

of its journal, Long Range Planning, was published in 1968. In France the business

school INSEAD was set up in 1957. In Switzerland IMI was founded in Geneva by

Alcan Aluminium in 1946 and IMEDE was founded in Lausanne in 1957 by Nestlé.

IMD was created in 1990 in a merger between IMI and IMEDE.

So, by the time we get to the early 1970s, corporate planning was very much a

central part of the dominant discourse on management, but despite the claims this

discourse made to a scientific status it could produce no reliable body of evidence to

support the application of corporate planning techniques. This was the era, in both

North America and Europe, of the growth of large corporate planning departments

in commercial and industrial enterprises of any consequence. The growth of these

departments, as well as the management consultancies, accounting firms, information technology advisers, investment banks and business schools, created a huge

demand for economists. Ralph completed his studies in economics in the late 1960s

and had the choice of planning-type jobs in the UK in Shell, Ford and British Steel,

having discounted the possibility of applying to the World Bank or looking for a

post in the USA. The future seemed rosy if you were an economist, particularly one

educated, as he had been, at universities such as the London School of Economics

which emphasised mathematics, statistics and econometric modelling. He took a job

in 1970 forecasting steel demand at British Steel and then moved a short time later to

the corporate planning department of a large international construction company,

John Laing, which had been founded nearly a century before. He continued to work

there until 1984 and then spent a year at an investment house in the City of London

before taking up an academic career.

However, the apparently rosy picture for economists and their techniques was

indeed short-lived. In the early 1970s oil prices shot up and the world economy

12  Chapter 1  Strategic management in perspective

moved into significant decline, accompanied by alarming increases in inflation rates

around the globe. The 1970s were difficult, turbulent years in both economic and

political terms. The limits to our ability to forecast what would happen next became

painfully obvious and the whole project of corporate, strategic planning was called

into question. The Club of Rome, established in 1968, called for limits to economic

growth and this call became more influential in the 1970s. Large companies began

to drastically reduce their corporate planning departments and the armies of economists had to find other forms of employment unless, as Ralph did in continuing to

work at John Laing, they managed to develop activities in existing corporate planning departments that other managers found useful.

By the end of the decade, the whole activity of corporate planning was coming in for major criticism, as indeed was the whole scientific, technical approach

taught by business schools and installed by management consultants. Abernathy and

Hayes (1980) of Harvard Business School wrote an influential article blaming the

USA’s lack of competitiveness against Japan on a highly rational, technique-­oriented

approach to management. This was followed by other influential books (for example, by management consultants Pascale and Athos, 1981) which compared management methods in the USA and Japan, finding the latter with its emphasis on wider

discussion, teams and more inclusive decision making far superior to ­American

approaches based on rational tools and techniques applied in highly hierarchical

ways. Then there was a very influential book, with much the same message, by the

management consultants Peters and Waterman (1982), which identified what they

claimed from their research were the key practices of successful businesses which

included an emphasis on culture, teams, leadership and visions. Corporate planning

became a rather taboo term and instead people spoke of strategic management,

now understood as an essential competence of visionary, inspirational leaders rather

than a purely techniques-driven, rational activity. This shift was expressed in a still

ongoing debate between rational planners and those who presented the notion of the

learning organisation. In Chapter 8 we will mention a famous instance of this debate

in an exchange between Ansoff and Mintzberg.

During the 1980s the field of strategy emerged as a particular form of management and a separate field of study not only in the private sector but in the public sector too as politicians preached and implemented what became known as the

‘managerialist’ form of corporate governance, which found its public manifestation

in the form of new public management (NPM). The professional status of strategic

planners is indicated by the founding of the Strategic Management Society at an

initial meeting in London in 1981, with officers elected at a second conference held

in Montreal in 1982, and a constitution approved at the third meeting in Paris in

1983. The Strategic Management Journal (SMJ) has, since its inception in 1980,

been the official journal of the Strategic Management Society presented as an international institution, although one heavily influenced by academics in the USA where

its administration is located.

At much the same time, and coterminous with the rise of a new economic orthodoxy in the 60s and 70s generally referred to as ‘neo-liberalism’, which privileges the role of markets in solving human problems, developments in the field of

finance revolutionised teaching at elite business schools. These schools now trained

not general managers but professional investors and financial engineers for the

investment banks, private equity and hedge funds and management consultancies.

Chapter 1  Strategic management in perspective   13

Agency theory justified mergers and acquisitions and the leveraging of corporations

with debt while minimising the importance of other stakeholders and dismissing

any social function for managers. Managers had come to be regarded as the agents

of shareholders, rather than any other stakeholders, who were to be controlled and

rewarded through being provided with a part of an organisation’s shareholding so

that they would come to have the same motivation as shareholders. Business school

lecturers, at least at the elite schools, increasingly had little contact with managers in

industrial or service enterprises, becoming more and more concerned with strategy

and finance. Business policy courses on MBAs became strategic management modules strongly rooted in industrial economics.

By the time we get to the first decade of the twenty-first century, the pre-1970s

notion that managers were fundamentally the stewards of society’s resources and

acted on behalf of all stakeholders gave way to a notion of managers as agents

for shareholders whose prime function was to maximise shareholder value. This

development of the new phase of neo-liberal capitalism was reinforced by the elite

business schools of the USA and Europe who focused on training investment bankers and management consultants, while the role of the lesser schools was reduced

to preparing managers for the rational (mathematical) techniques required for their

profit-maximising tasks. It was during this period that the professional role of managers was downgraded since it was viewed by the adherents of investment capitalism

to be a brake on the more dramatic returns which shareholders might expect from

their investments: the focus of managers was thought to be too diffuse and spread

amongst too many stakeholders. To compensate for this downgrading, business

schools seized on a renewed purpose and identity which had become popular since

the early 1990s under the name of leadership, and one of the most important leadership functions was thought to be formulating strategy of a transformatory kind

and then inspiring others to implement it. Now, of course, investment capitalism

has been revealed to be deeply flawed, with the extended risk taking of investment

bankers, the near collapse and government bail out of financial institutions and we

do not know how central notions of management might evolve in response. The discourse about leadership has endured and proliferated since this time, however, and

it has become so entrenched that it is almost impossible to talk about organisations

without mentioning the visionary and transformative role of leaders.

So, looking back over the past century, we find the earliest developments in the

field of strategic management in the management consultancies where McKinsey

(1932) perhaps caught the essence of the early concept of strategy, although he

never used that word, when he talked about adjusting policies to meet changing

conditions. After the Second World War, the manager Barnard (1948) mentioned

administrative strategy and this was picked up by Hardwick and Landuyt (1961).

Another McKinsey consultant, Reilly (1955), talked about planning the strategy of

a business. At the business schools, Newman of Columbia Business School (1951)

talked about the nature and importance of strategy; sociologist Selznick from Berkeley

(1957) talked about the role of the leader to set objectives and define missions t­ aking

account of internal policy and external expectations; Moore (1959) conducted a

sophisticated discussion of managerial strategies; Chandler (1962), historian from

MIT, explored the relationship between organisational structure and organisational

strategy; Gilmore and Brandenburg (1962) wrote about the anatomy of corporate

planning and Tilles (1963) from Harvard Business School discussed how to evaluate

14  Chapter 1  Strategic management in perspective

corporate strategies. Then 1965 saw the publication of Corporate Strategy by Ansoff,

an engineer at Rand Corporation, and Business Policy: Text and Cases by Learned,

Christensen, Andrews and Guth from Harvard Business School. After this, strategic

management became a separate discipline for academics and consultants as a profession allying itself with economics and having its own professional societies and

journals. Members of this new profession were also employed in corporate planning


It is clear then that academics at a few of the elite business schools and consultants at the most prestigious management consultancies in the USA took the lead

in developing the concept of corporate planning and strategic management after

the Second World War. The 1960s saw explosive growth in ideas but the oil crisis

of the early 1970s led to disillusionment through the 1970s, expressed, for example, by M

­ cKinsey consultants who called for a more consultative and inspirational

approach (Peters and Waterman, 1982). Ever since there has been an ongoing debate

about effectiveness and just what strategy means.

The above brief review of how the notion of strategic management came to occupy

a central position in the dominant discourse on organisations and their management

leads us to a number of conclusions relevant to embarking on a serious study of

strategic management. These are as follows:

• Far from being an adaptation of ancient military wisdom to modern business

corporations, the notion of strategic management as it is expressed in the current dominant discourse on organisations is a rather new one characteristic of

only the last three decades, well within the career of anyone now on the verge of

retirement. And it has changed significantly during three decades. For example,

in the corporations Ralph worked for during the 1970s no one used the language

of strategic management as having to do with visions and missions. And when

Chris began his career in the public sector at the end of the 80s some of the new

NPM orthodoxy was just beginning to take hold. Of course the notion of strategic

management has emerged in the long history of Western thought not just about

organisations but about what it means to be a human agent and about society

generally. In a textbook about ways of thinking, we will of course be concerned

with this wider history of thought and the assumptions it brings with it which we

now take for granted.

• Furthermore, there are rather clear sociological reasons for the emergence of the

particular notions of strategic management to be found in the dominant discourse

of the past three decades. Those reasons have to do with the ongoing search

for a respected professional identity for the management class in response to the

dubious success of rational techniques of analysis and corporate planning. Additionally, during the same period the post–Second World War Keynesian consensus about demand management of national economies has been replaced with

a much more vigorous, some would say aggressive, phase of capitalism with its

concern for the role of privatisation and markets in transforming economic life.

Leaders and managers are regarded as central to the project of opening up all

areas of the economy to market forces. The response has been a wider definition

of strategic management to encompass culture, leadership and learning but without giving up the claim to scientific respectability upon which the professional

identity of management is felt to depend. What is glossed over, however, is the

Chapter 1  Strategic management in perspective   15

lack of an evidence base to qualify as a science so that the claim to organisational

and ­management science is largely an ideology which sustains particular power

relations between managers and other groups in society.

• The dominant strategic management discourse does not, however, constitute a

clear body of knowledge accepted by all. Instead, it is a set of highly contested

concepts. If we are to get away from simply summarising the different sides in

this argument and adopting a tolerant but ineffectual position in which we do not

have to choose between them but can select a little of each; if we want to move

away from being trapped in the repetitive thought patterns this leads to, then

we have to explore what assumptions are being taken for granted in the debate

and how we have come to make them. That is the purpose of this book: namely,

to explore different ways of thinking and whether we need to reject some and

uphold others or whether we can take a little of each depending on what we are

confronting and what we want to achieve.

Since this is a textbook on ways of thinking about strategic management, we want

to move to a brief illustration of what we mean by the term ‘ways of thinking’ before

finishing the chapter with an outline of the rest of the book.

1.3  Ways of thinking: stable global structures and fluid local interactions

We want to use the image on the cover of this book to point to what we think

are two very different ways of seeing and thinking about a phenomenon, be it the

image on the cover or a human organisation. The image on the cover is a close-up

photograph, taken by Ralph’s son Adrian, of a Christmas Tree worm which lives on

the tiny section of coral reef you can see, metres below the surface of the sea off the

coast of Ko Lanta, Thailand. The worm furls up into a slim tube in the coral reef if it

senses danger and then it unfurls again to feed. Turning to the coral reef itself, what

you can readily see when you look at the picture as a whole, from a macro perspective as it were, is the intricate structure of this tiny part of the reef which consists of

the limestone skeletons of millions of dead coral polyps. One immediately obvious

way for a modern person to see and think about this coral reef image is in terms of

a stable structure. Thinking as a scientist who is objectively observing this structure

it would be quite natural to hypothesise that the structure has been constructed

according to some macro-principle or natural law: the pattern of the whole or

global structure is determined by some deterministic global principle which can be

expressed as a global mathematical equation so that the global structure or pattern

is, in effect, the realisation or implementation of a macro-design. This would mean

that changes in the structure are predictable and that it could only take a different

form, a different global pattern, if the global laws, or design principles, governing it

were to be changed. These notions of global laws, identifiable through the scientific

method, producing stable, predictable global structural patterns constitute one clear

way of seeing and thinking about the coral reef, a way which seems quite natural

because it is perfectly consistent with traditional science.

However, one reading of the modern natural sciences of complexity offers a second way of seeing and thinking about the coral reef. This involves focusing attention

16  Chapter 1  Strategic management in perspective

not on the global macro-pattern of the reef but upon the component coral organisms

from whose limestone skeletons the reef is gradually constructed. A living coral

polyp resembles a sea anemone, having a jelly-like sac attached at one end to a

cup-shaped skeleton that it secretes around itself. It feeds from the other end by

sweeping the sea water it dwells in with its tentacles, stunning microscopic prey

which it then draws inside itself. Corals reproduce by releasing fertilised eggs which

hatch to form larvae that settle on a suitable surface where they secrete their own

skeletal cups, so growing into mature coral. Individual corals gather together in

large colonies, interacting with each other and attaching themselves to the seabed,

forming extensive reefs, usually in shallow, warm-water seas. Reefs grow upward as

generations of corals die, leaving behind their skeletal cups which petrify as limestone, forming large, tree-like structures upon which the living coral and numerous

other species, such as feather duster worms, dwell. Corals are extremely ancient

animals, appearing in the fossil record in solitary form more than 400 million years

ago, evolving into modern reef-building forms over the last 25 million years. Coral

reefs can be thought of as unique complex systems forming the largest biological

structures on earth, consisting of ecological communities evolving in indispensable

symbiotic relationships with a type of brown algae. Each coral polyp component of

a coral reef displays particular states, for example, the state of being alive and the

state of being dead, which are dependent upon the numerous interactions between

that coral polyp and others. This interdependence between the coral polyps makes it

difficult to construct realistic models that match the natural level of complexity: the

kind of global macro-model of the traditional scientific way of thinking described

above simply does not incorporate the features which give a realistic picture of the

ongoing development of coral reefs.

However, over the last 50 years or so a different approach to scientific modelling

has been developed in what have come to be called the ‘natural complexity sciences’.

One model to be found in these sciences is called cellular automata, where each

component, such as a coral polyp, of a large system, such as a coral reef, is thought

of as following simple rules of interaction with other components. These rules of

local interaction are simulated on a computer and the global patterns, or structures,

produced by these local interactions are observed. Such modelling, therefore, can

be utilised to approach large-scale problems in which huge numbers of components

(cells or agents) interact locally with each other to produce complex global ‘wholes’

in the complete absence of any global laws or global design principles: local interaction produces emergent global pattern without any ‘direction’ from a ‘centre’ in

the form of global laws or designs that are to be realised or implemented. The complexity of species behaviour is shown to be generated by the simple, repeated local

interactions of the base units (coral polyps) which produce emergent patterns that

may survive over long periods of time. The models show that surprisingly complex

behaviours can arise from the action of local processes that are not globally directed

(Wolfram, 1986).

If we ‘see’ and think about the coral reef image on the cover of the book from this

perspective, we focus our attention in a very different way to the first way of thinking described above. The major concern now is with the local interaction of living

coral polyps, in other words, with micro-processes of interaction, rather than the

macro-patterns of the reef’s structure which at any one time is mainly the reflection

of patterns of past deaths. When we focus on living local interaction, we see that

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